11 Questions for Atlanta’s Mayoral Candidates

Keisha Lance Bottoms

Keisha Lance Bottoms
Keisha Lance Bottoms

Photograph courtesy of Keisha Lance Bottoms Campaign

1. According to Invest Atlanta’s housing strategy, tens of thousands of Atlantans, particularly those living on low incomes, spend more than one-third of their income on housing. How will you use the powers of your office to help people stay in their homes and people living on lower incomes afford to live in the city?
Atlanta without Atlantans is not the home we know and love. That is why I have proposed a comprehensive affordability strategy. As mayor, I will use property and development rights owned by the city to seek $500 million in private investment for a housing affordability and anti-displacement trust fund. Our city is best when public and private come together for urgent tasks that are necessary both economically and morally. A dedicated fund will allow us to increase neighborhood stability and investment through the public acquisition, rehabilitation, and sale of vacant properties to income-qualified buyers or mission-driven developers. It can also fund targeted down payment assistance and property tax mitigation projects. And, importantly, it can finance the construction of critically necessary affordable units. I will urgently convene local leaders to once and for all find the resources to create an inclusive, affordable Atlanta. I will also launch an initiative dedicated to the well-being of renters and rental housing. We will create a comprehensive inventory of affordable rental stock; assist landlords in maintaining unit quality; directly engage developers dedicated to high-quality, affordable rental projects; enforce rental quality standards; and promote the rights of renters throughout the city.

2. Atlanta is dotted with memorials to the Confederacy, ranging from street names to statues. Should they be kept, removed, or modified?
This summer’s horrifying events in Charlottesville—including mass hateful protests by white supremacists and the murder of a young counterprotester—have focused the nation’s attention on the symbols of the Confederacy that confront many of us every day. The City of Atlanta decided that, given the extensive number of Confederate street names and monuments here in the city, a thoughtful and comprehensive approach was needed to address them. That is why city council passed legislation to establish an advisory committee on street names and monuments related to the Confederacy, which, with input from the public, will develop a set of recommendations for Council to act on. Because of the seriousness of this issue and the violent reactions we have already seen in other cities, including Charlottesville, I believe that responsible leadership requires us to allow the advisory committee to complete its thorough process.

3. Many mayors have struggled with reducing homelessness in the city. Mayor Kasim Reed called for the creation of smaller facilities with services to help this population. Will you continue such a plan or do you have an alternative?
I embrace the housing first philosophy and will be proud as mayor to support Partners for HOME in enacting the strategic plan developed with the leadership of the City of Atlanta’s Continuum of Care and the partnership of shelter, housing, and wrap-around service providers throughout the city. By establishing coordinated entry and embracing a housing first approach, Atlanta has started down the path toward making homelessness rare and brief. The $50 million in dedicated funding available from the City’s opportunity bond and the generous match from the philanthropic community will support a range of housing options for the individuals and families who need our help. Smaller shelters, scattered-site housing, leveraging funding-layering opportunities with partners such as the Atlanta Housing Authority, will allow our homeless individuals to live with dignity and receive the treatment, education and job placement services they require, with the ultimate goal of permanent housing placements for all persons experiencing homelessness.

4. Atlanta voters approved a sales tax that will raise approximately $2.5 billion for new transit in the city. How should that money be spent?
Atlantans deserve a comprehensive transit network. No Atlantan should face uncertainty over being able to get to work, school, or the grocery store because they lack access to a vehicle, yet that is the reality for too many of our residents. Data shows that Atlanta residents south of I-20 have the longest daily commutes. These neighborhoods need mobility relief. Atlanta has embarked on a multi-billion-dollar transit investment initiative. As mayor, I’ll make sure that our transit investments prioritize a useable mix of safe, reliable options for the Atlanta neighborhoods in the south and west where residents are least likely to have access to a vehicle, and where transit options are otherwise lacking.

Additionally, I will push to dedicate a percentage of transit funding for transit-oriented development, with an eye toward residential affordability. Dedicating even 1 percent of referendum funds to creating affordable communities, vibrant business districts, and the kind of retail that supports the needs of families, would make millions of dollars available to preserve and expand the kinds of neighborhoods that Atlantans need. Plus, these kinds of livable, walkable communities save residents money by decreasing wear and tear on our streets and highways; decrease traffic by removing cars from the road; and create the community cohesion that has been shown to make neighborhoods safer.

5. The city’s zoning code hasn’t been updated in decades. City officials are planning a multi-year rewrite. What changes would you like to see in the city’s zoning and where?
The most important zoning issue to be addressed is the addition of an inclusionary zoning requirement to address the city’s affordability issues. Councilmembers have proposed legislation to implement an inclusionary zoning policy—meaning that new residential construction must include an affordable housing component—in targeted neighborhoods that are facing an elevated risk displacement. This legislative push is an important step toward making Atlanta inclusive and affordable for everyone. But as mayor, I will go a step further. I will implement a citywide inclusionary zoning policy, so that developments in every neighborhood will have a stake in keeping Atlanta affordable.

6. Say a recession occurs during your term. What’s the first program you cut? Or do you raise revenues, and how? Or do you pull money from the city’s reserves to keep government operating at the same level?
In the event of a recession, Atlanta will need to maximize our resources by cutting waste and spending inefficiencies. We may consider the implementation of zero-based budgeting for some departments to ensure money is being spent efficiently and effectively. Additionally, we must explore alternative sources of revenue—especially ones that ensure that our daytime commuting population shares the burden of the infrastructure costs that city residents currently bear on their behalf. And, importantly, we must fight for every federal, state, and regional dollar that our city deserves.

7. Candidates say they want to improve education in the city. But Atlanta Public Schools is a separate entity and the city has no direct control over school policy. So how do you improve public education in the city?
I have proposed a platform with a particular focus on education because every Atlanta child deserves a great start and a chance to achieve their dreams. The city might not have control over the public schools, but there are ample opportunities for the city to prioritize the resources it does control in a way that is supportive of the school system, and to improve coordination with the schools on issues of mutual interest. For example, some of my proudest work as a member of Atlanta City Council includes authoring lead-testing legislation that resulted in Atlanta Public Schools testing and addressing the safety of its water in schools throughout the city, and working to protect our children and communities against vicious dog attacks by coordinating city and county resources.

To help our students reach their fullest potential, I have proposed to give every Atlanta child a great start by creating a Children’s Savings Account program to help put college or other future opportunities within reach. Only about $250,000 would provide a $50 seed savings for every APS kindergarten student.

I will also make the sidewalks, streetlights, and other [means of] safety near schools the top priority of our infrastructure investment and public safety programs. Our city is making major investments in road and transit infrastructure and public safety, and as mayor I will make projects that support safe routes to school a key priority for those investments.

As mayor I will also appoint a liaison within my office to work directly with schools and residents to improve access to quality education throughout Atlanta. The city, community service providers, our business community, and our higher education community all have a stake in the success of APS and Atlanta’s students. To coordinate these stakeholders and push for the best policies and resources for our children, I will appoint a senior-level director of education within my administration who will develop and implement a comprehensive strategic education plan for the City of Atlanta.

Finally I will convene our local industry leaders, public schools, community colleges, and colleges and universities to develop career-preparatory workforce training targeting Atlanta’s unique private-sector strengths: film and entertainment production, smart technology, and construction. Atlanta has a film and entertainment industry that now rivals Hollywood’s—to the tune of a $5.1 billion statewide impact in 2014. We are also making massive investments in the kinds of cutting-edge technological infrastructure that will make Atlanta a “smart city”—even delving into the world of autonomous vehicles. And we continue to move forward with a multi-billion dollar road and transit improvement program. These public investments are prime opportunities to create training and employment programs to support good-paying jobs for our young people. As mayor, I will ensure that these major investment opportunities include career training and pathways for our students.

8. Atlanta’s arts scene is growing, particularly the independent arts scene, but funding remains an issue. Mayor Kasim Reed during the 2017 legislative session proposed a fractional sales tax to raise cash for the arts but the effort failed. Would you lobby for a similar initiative?
My father was an artist, and I learned from him at a young age the immeasurable beauty and fulfillment that the arts can bring to a life. As mayor I will be proud to support our local artists and would certainly consider an additional funding mechanism for the arts in the form of new revenue. A one-tenth of a cent sales tax for the arts would result in 10 to 15 million dollars annually in dedicated funding. I think Atlanta voters should have the opportunity to decide on such a plan. Another solution that some cities have employed is a voluntary arts contribution program, in which individuals have the option to direct a specified amount from their property tax payment to support the arts.

9. Simple question: How many police officers does Atlanta have, how many does it need, and how will you pay for them?
Right now the city has between 1,700 and 1,800 officers. Research indicates that our ideal police department would stand at 2,000 officers. Officer recruitment and retention are two of the most critical challenges facing departments across the country right now. Fewer candidates are seeking to become officers today than in recent years. APD faces unique retention challenges on top of that: because APD officers are the most thoroughly trained in Georgia, and because they receive a diversity of experience that only comes of serving a diverse urban population, APD officers are attractive targets for recruitment by neighboring jurisdictions. To meet these challenges as mayor, I will provide APD the resources to retain the recruiting expertise that top-performing companies use to target the best hires. This will result in a more efficient and effective recruiting process and will free our officers to dedicate themselves to the real public safety work of the city. I will also target especially qualified populations with recruitment incentives, as when I supported the $5,000 military pay bonus for public safety recruits in the most recent City budget. And because we know that officers are at their most effective when they have deep and authentic community ties, I will partner with APS and our local colleges and universities to compete for the talents of our young Atlantans.

10. The city has discussed deprioritizing marijuana, making the penalty of possession similar to a traffic ticket. If the topic is still up for debate when you take office, what will you do? [Note: Atlanta City Council passed this legislation in October—after this survey was submitted to the candidates.]
Deprioritizing marijuana is a commonsense solution that has been embraced by leaders across the political spectrum. It can save money for our overstretched public safety operations and reduce the number of encounters between police and the public, which in turn reduces the potential opportunity for racial profiling incidents or unnecessary escalation. I am proud to have supported the successful legislation to deprioritize marijuana possession here in the city and to have authored a provision to require all law enforcement officers operating in the city to receive specific training with respect to the new provision.

11. Neighborhoods that have traditionally been home to black residents and black-owned businesses have watched property values and rents rise thanks to new public investments like the BeltLine and a renewed interest in city life. Displacement is a key concern. How can the mayor prevent not just people losing their homes, but people losing their communities?
I am proud to be the daughter of a long line of Atlanta residents, and I know how devastating it can be when neighborhoods begin to experience displacement; I have watched it happen to my own family in previous waves of development in the city. That is why my proudest accomplishment as a councilmember is authoring legislation establishing Displacement Free Zones to keep longstanding residents in their homes. As a result, the City of Atlanta has developed a first-in-the-nation public-private fund to pay property taxes for twenty years for residents of neighborhoods at risk of gentrification and displacement. As mayor I will bring that same program to high gentrification-risk neighborhoods throughout the city.